Let me forewarn you this is a very long blog post and perhaps one of our longest. I hope you will find it is worth the read.

Our friend Frank Cucchiara who lives back East has been building one of the very best collection of Japanese and Chinese bonsai pots in America.  I would say he makes us jealous – but fortunately we don’t think that way!  We are pleased that some of these incredible works of art are making its way to America.

Recently Frank purchased a Yusen pot from Japan. Let’s take a look at the pot. Click the image for a larger photo.

Yusen Pot (8.9 x 7.4 x 5.9 cm)

Yusen Pot (8.9 x 7.4 x 5.9 cm)

A beautifully painted scene next to a mountain while three people are on the boat on a body of water.   I have seen this pot in the Yusen book but only the front of the pot.  Fortunately we have all sides to view.



The question is what is written on this pot as the other three remaining sides are full of writing. The dealer couldn’t elaborate so we decided to see if we could find an answer. Well this is where the fun begins.

The Search for an Answer

Frank and I were talking via Facebook both wondering what the inscriptions meant on this pot.  We told Frank we would reach out to our friend Mary from China to see if she could help us out.

We sent her photographs and she began the process of helping us unravel the story.  We learned this story was about the two people on the boat and it spoke to their having tea or a drink and sharing old times together. It also talked about the sky and water.    Let me add that this writing is a very old style of Chinese characters so translation wasn’t going to be very simple.  While speaking to Mary she mentioned that she had a friend in China that might be able to give us more help on the translation.

A few days later Mary emailed to say that her friend has communicated that the writing was actually a poem written by Su Shi and that the date of July 16th was inscribed.

The Clues

Mary’s friend provided this information. “The poem is pre Chi Bi Fu and is written by Su Shi.  The background is that Su Shi visited Chibi.  The text states that on the 16th of July he was visiting a friend and they were boating at Chibi. The wind is blowing so softly. Su Shi proposed a toast to his friend, and then recited some poems from Shi Jing which described the moon. Later, the moon rising up from the east of the mountain with white fog coming from the surface of the river like it was swimming in the sky.  The poem tends to describe the happiness felt by Su Shi and his friend as they are watching the beautiful view.”

Yusen - back of the pot.

Yusen – back of the pot.

The Answers Unveiled

So now we had several clues. The poem was written by Su Shi.  It was written on the 16th of July as he was visiting Chiba and it was on a boat that he was enjoying the company of his friend. We also notice in the front of pot a mountain scene with trees.

Yusen Pot with writing by Su Shi of China

Yusen Pot with writing by Su Shi of China

Now that we have several clues can we determine what is written on the pot?  We first began to explore who is Su Shi.  Using Google, we determined exactly who Su Shi is which lead to even more discoveries.

Su Shi

The poet Su Shi who wrote under the pseudonym of Dongpo Jushi (東坡居士) and he is often referred to as Su Dongpo.  He was born on January 8, 1037 and died on August 24, 1101.  He was a writer, poet, artist, calligrapher, pharmacologist, gastronome and statesman of the Song Dynasty.  Besides his renowned poetry, his other extant writing are of great value in the understanding of the 11th century Chinese travel literature as well as details of the 11th century Chinese iron industry.

A portrait of Su Shi.

A portrait of Su Shi.

We also know from the pot that the location was Chibi – so what is significant about this place and where is it?  But one other puzzle is that the person helping us in China referred to it as Chi Bi Fu?

The Red Cliffs of Chibi

As we searched for Chibi we soon discovered that Chibi is located in southeastern Hubei province and it is famous for the Battle of Red Cliffs.  Interesting that on the front of the pot is a mountain cliff and that Yusen elected to paint this pot red rather than blue.  Is this significant? Without question.

The Battle of Red Cliffs, otherwise known as the Battle of Chibi, was a decisive battle at the end of the Han Dynasty, immediately prior to the Three Kingdoms period of Chinese history. It was fought in the winter of 208/9 AD between the allied forces of the southern warlords Liu Bei and Sun Quan and the numerically superior forces of the northern warlord Cao Cao. Liu Bei and Sun Quan successfully frustrated Cao Cao’s effort to conquer the land south of the Yangtze River and reunite the territory of the Eastern Han Dynasty. The allied victory at Red Cliffs ensured the survival of Liu Bei and Sun Quan, gave them control of the Yangtze (de Crespigny 2004:273), and provided a line of defense that was the basis for the later creation of the two southern states of Shu Han and Eastern Wu.

Descriptions of the battle differ widely on details, and the location of the battle is fiercely debated (de Crespigny 2004:256 78n). Although its precise location remains uncertain, the majority of academic conjectures place it on the south bank of the Yangtze River, southwest of present-day Wuhan and northeast of Baqiu (present-day Yueyang, Hunan).

The Red Cliffs of Chibi

The Red Cliffs of Chibi

So now we know the writing is from Su Shi written some 1,000 years ago in China. This scene is in Chibi were the battle of Red Cliffs was fought in AD 208/209.  A battle some 1800 years ago.  Knowing that Su Shi was a poet can we speculate perhaps he wrote a poem about this trip to Chiba to see his friend?

Pre Chi Bi Fu

Our next clue was from our friend in China that stated it was pre Chi Bi Fu. What did this mean?  So we did a search on Fu to see if there was a connection. This is what we found.

Fu (Chinese: 賦), variously translated as rhapsody or poetic exposition, is a form of Chinese rhymed prose that was the dominant literary form during the Han dynasty. Fu are poetic pieces in which an object, feeling, or subject is described and rhapsodized in exhaustive detail and from as many angles as possible. Classical fu composers attempted to use as wide a vocabulary as they could, and often included great numbers of rare and archaic terms in their compositions. Fu poems employ alternating rhyme and prose, varying line length, close alliteration, onomatopoeia, loose parallelism, and extensive cataloging of their topics.

Unlike the songs of the Classic of Poetry or the Verses of Chu, fu were meant to be recited aloud or chanted, but were not sung. The fu genre came into being around the 2nd and 3rd centuries BC and was regularly used until the Song dynasty. Fu were used as grand praises for the imperial courts, palaces, and cities, but were also used to write “fu on things”, in which any place, object, or feeling was rhapsodized in exhaustive detail.

So now we believe that was is written is surely a poem and our friend indicated it was a part of the Shi Jing.

Shi Jing – The Book of Songs

So what is Shi Jing. Another search located that answer quite quickly.

Shi Jing (诗经), translated variously as the Classic of Poetry, the Book of Songs, the Book of Poetry, or the Book of Odes, is the earliest existing collection of Chinese poems. It comprises 305 poems, some possibly written as early as 1000 BC.

Shi Jing contains some of the oldest pieces of Chinese literature. It is said to have been compiled by Confucius himself, who has chosen out some 300 poems out of 3000. During the Former Han Dynasty, there were still existant four versions of the collection: in the states of Lu 鲁 (by Shen Gong, 申公), Qi 齐 (by Hou Cang 后仓 and Master Sun 孙氏) and Han 韩 (by Han Ying 韩婴), and the private collection of Duke Mao 毛公. Only the last has survived until now, the commentaries to the Han version have survived in the collection Hanshi waizhuan 韩诗外传.

The four divisions of the Book of Songs are the “Airs of the states” (Guofeng 国风), mostly songs of love and emotions, the Minor Odes (Xiaoya 小雅), partially with social critics, the Major Odes (Daya 大雅), concerning the praise of the Zhou Dynasty, and the Hymns (Song 颂), ritual songs of the house of Zhou 周, the dukes of Lu 鲁 and the descendants of the house of Shang 商. All poems have a small preface (xiaoxu 小序), the first poem has a Great Preface (Daxu 大序). The content of these prefaces is a moral or even political interpretation of songs that surfacially seem to be simple love songs. The characteristic of these songs is that the initial verse creates a certain mood, in most cases using a picture of nature, birds or plants.

Almost all scholars of Han, Tang and Song wrote commentaries to the Book of Songs, because it was an integral part of Confucian teaching and had to be learned by heart by generations and generations of scholars.

In the ancient times, poems are lyrics for accompanying tunes. The Shi Jing is classified into three parts according to contents, namely Feng (ballads), Ya (peoms from intellectuals or aristocrats), and Song (songs for praying). Feng, also called Guofeng, is mostly the collection of folk songs. It is divided into 15 groups and has a total of 160 poems, which mainly express the love between men and women and the dissatisfaction of the people toward the emperor. Ya contains 105 poems, including 31 articles of Daya and 74 articles of Xiaoya, most of which were written by court officials and aristocrats. Song collects 40 poems, which are songs for offering sacrifice and praising emperors by the aristocrats. They are usually accompanied with dance during the performance. Although the Book of Songs is a collection of works of many people, authors of most works are unknown, just a small part of them were researched out by later generations.

The Shi Jing exerted a very profound effect on ancient China in terms of politics, culture, language, and even thinking. During the Spring and Autumn Period, diplomats often expressed words that they didn’t want to say by themselves or that were difficult to say by quoting sentences from the Book of Songs, which is similar to today’s diplomatic language. Confucius, a sage of China and who gave a high praise to the Shi Jing, claimed that people’s cultures, observation abilities and interpersonal skills could be highly improved through the study of the Shi Jing.

So is there a poem about Chiba written by Su Shi in the Shi Jing?  The answer follows.

Ode to the Red Cliff by Su Dong-po

In continuing our research, we then quickly discovered that Su Shi under his pseudonym Su Dong-Po had written a poem on August 18th, 1082 about his visit to the Red Cliffs of Sheba.  Could this be the poem that is on Frank’s pot?

We at first found a Chinese version of the poem but we continued to search until we found an English translation. This is what we started to read:

“My guests and I were taking a boat ride beneath the Red Cliff.
The breeze blew gently.
The water remained calm.
I toasted my guests, recited the poems in the chapter entitled “The Moon Rises”
And then sang the song, “Being Modest and Retiring” 3.
Soon after the moon rose above the eastern mountain
And lingered between the Dipper and the Herdboy 4.
The dew-like foam floated across the river.
The reflection of the light blurred into the hues of the sky.
We let our small boat drift freely like a reed
And rode along the expanse of the unknown.
Unaware of where the rushing boat would end up,
We had the thrill of riding the mighty wind.
It seemed as though we were lightly leaving this world of cares,
Had grown wings, ascended, and become immortal.”

This is so much like the translation from the pot that we are convinced that what is written on Frank’s Yusen pot is a shortened version of the entire poem Ode to Red Cliff written by Su Shi. But was it this exact poem?

Our Conclusions

Without question the inscribed text on the Yusen pot is a poem describing Su Shi’s trip to the Red Cliff of Chiba.  The date on the pot is different than the date recorded for the poem Ode to Red Cliff written by Su Shi on August 18th in 1082.

This could mean that he visited on the 16th of July but then wrote the poem on the 18th of August.  This is what we believe has happened. It makes sense to us. Su Shi was born in Meishan, near Mount Emei in what is now Sichuan province and he traveled to Chiba.  Doesn’t it make sense that after his trip and return home he penned this poem. This also helps corroborates why our friend in China indicates that is is pre Chi Bi Fu.  We take that to means that what is written on the pot occurred before the poem (Fu – poetic exposition) was written.

Can we be assured this is correct – of course not; however, we believe the evidence that we have points to this having occurred.

So our conclusion is that Frank’s pot contains the story of the Red Cliff of Chiba visited by Su Shi. It must have been a very memorable visit with his friend as the scene is described as on of great happiness for Shu Si and his friend.

We truly hope you enjoyed this adventure with us.  I know that Frank is very pleased that the story of his pot has been unlocked. For us, the thrill of the discovery was extremely gratifying.  We hope to visit Frank one day and hold this pot in our hands. We think the trip would be worth it. Don’t you?

The Ode to Red Cliff by Su Dong-po (English Translation)

On August 18th in 1082,
My guests and I were taking a boat ride beneath the Red Cliff.
The breeze blew gently.
The water remained calm.
I toasted my guests, recited the poems in the chapter entitled “The Moon Rises”
And then sang the song, “Being Modest and Retiring” 3.
Soon after the moon rose above the eastern mountain
And lingered between the Dipper and the Herdboy 4.
The dew-like foam floated across the river.
The reflection of the light blurred into the hues of the sky.
We let our small boat drift freely like a reed
And rode along the expanse of the unknown.
Unaware of where the rushing boat would end up,
We had the thrill of riding the mighty wind.
It seemed as though we were lightly leaving this world of cares,
Had grown wings, ascended, and become immortal.

Then we drank and celebrated.
We drummed the boat’s side and sang,
“The oars of laurel and orchid strike the reflection of the moon.
The boat goes upstream.
My feelings reach the distance where the flowing water leads.
I am longing for the sages 5 at the other side of the sky.”
One guest accompanied the song with a bamboo flute.
The music was sad as if he were weeping, yearning, or lamenting.
The sound was melodious and lingered like an endless silk thread.
A dragon lying hidden in the secluded valley would be inspired to dance to the music
And a widow in a lonely boat might be brought to tears.

I straightened up and earnestly asked why he played such a sad tune.
The guest replied,
“‘The moon is bright and the stars are sparse;
Ravens fly south.’
We recite this from Cao Cao’s poem 6, don’t we?
We can see Xia-kou City 7 in the east
And then Wu-chang City in the west.
Mountains and rivers intertwine each other.
The trees here are lush and green.
Was this not where Cao Cao was defeated by Yu Zhou 8 ?
When Cao Cao seized Jing-zhou City, captured Jiang-ling City 9,
And rode along the Yangtze River downstream to the east,
His fleet of warships stretched hundreds of miles;
The flags and banners of his troops filled the sky.
Drinking wine in front of a river,
General Cao improvised poetry while brandishing his lance.
Surely he was the hero of his time, but where is he now?
We fish and fell trees on this small island,
Befriending deer, fish, and lobsters.
Riding a small boat,
We raise gourd cups to toast each other.
We are like a speck of grain in the sea
Or mayflies between heaven and earth.
I lament that our life is short,
And covet the endlessness of the Yangtze River.
I wish I could roam in the sky by grasping a flying fairy
And embrace the moon with which I could live forever.
I am aware that this dream cannot be realized.
Therefore, I entrusted the lingering music to the sad wind.”

I asked my guest,
“Do you truly understand the nature of water and the moon?”
Instead of waiting for his answer,
I expressed my point of view,
“The stream flows away, but never dries up.
The moon may appear full or crescent-shaped,,
But it never changes its size.
From the viewpoint of change,
The world cannot remain the same for longer than a moment.
From the viewpoint of constancy,
Everything including us will last forever.
So why should we envy other things?
In this world, everything has its natural master.
If it does not belong to me,
I dare not take it even if it has little value.
However, there are two exceptions:
The fresh wind on the river becomes a pleasant sound
As long our ears open to it;
The moon 10 between the mountains becomes beautiful
As long as our eyes are aware of it.
Free and inexhaustible,
The breeze and the moon are the Creator’s endless treasure
Which we may enjoy together.”

My guest emerged from his sorrow and smiled.
Then we washed dishes, ate our meal, and toasted each other.
After we finished eating,
The dishes were scattered about in disorder.
We reclined against each other in the boat,
Unaware of the sun rising in the east.

Footnotes for The Ode to Red Cliff

1 Four different mountains in Hubei Province all have the same name: the Red Cliff. The first is located northeast of Ja-yu-xian City. This was where Yu Zhou of the Kingdom of Wu defeated Cao Cao. The second is located southeast of Wu-chang-xian City. The third is located in Dun-kou City of Han-yang County and is also known as Wu-lin-feng Mountain, which belongs to the Lin-zhang Mountain Range. The fourth is outside the city Dong-po Su visited, Huang-gang-xian City. Su’s essay said that this was where Yu Zhou defeated Cao Cao because Su wanted to add another dimension to his essay by using this historical event.

2 Shi (a bar in the front part of a carriage for passengers to hold onto, not fancy but essential for safety) and Zi-zhan were Dong-po Su’s other first names. He was a descendant of Wei-dao Su (648-705), a prime minister during Empress Ze-tian Wu’s reign. Dong-po Su was a native of Mei-shan City (present day Mei-shan-xian City in Sichuan Province). He, his father, Xun Su, and his younger brother, Che Su, were all famous essayists. Today people call them the “Three Sus”. Their essays are outstanding and especially excel in argumentative writing. There was a Chinese saying, “If one masters the essays of the Three Sus, one eats mutton. Otherwise, one eats the roots of greens.” The saying showed that their argumentative writings were considered model essays for those who tried to prepare for the Advanced Exam. The Three Sus are included among “the Eight Masters of Ancient Chinese Prose”. Dong-po Su was learned and talented. In 1057, he and his younger brother took the Palace Exam at the Board of Rites. Xiu Ou-yang was the examiner. In this exam, Dong-po Su wrote the essay “When Punishing or Awarding People, We Must Be Kind and Sincere” as his paper when taking the Palace Exam. Ou-yang asked him, “In your essay, Gao-tao said three times, ‘Kill him.’ Emperor Yao said three times, ‘Pardon him.’ Where does this story come from?” Su replied, “I thought it must have been so.” Ou-yang praised Dong-po Su highly and said to himself, “I should keep this man out of the limelight.” This statement showed Ou-yang’s caution for nurturing young talent. In the above exam, Su’s score was the highest, but Ou-yang put him in second place and put Gong Zeng in first place. Ou-yang said, “Su is only twenty-two years old. If I put him in first place, he might become proud.” Later, Dong-po Su was appointed as the mayor’s assistant at Feng-xiang-fu City and then an Editor of Historical Records.

In 1069, An-shi Wang became the prime minister. He established new law codes for reform. Dong-po Su opposed Wang’s reforms for the following reasons: Wang emphasized establishing new law codes, while Su emphasized appointing talented government officials. Wang wanted to quickly apply his new laws to the entire nation, while Su promoted slow and steady reforms. Wang put top priority on exploring sources of revenue, while Su considered frugality essential. Su’s proposal was not adopted by the emperor’s court. In 1071, after Su asked to be transferred to Hang-zhou City, he was appointed as the city’s assistant mayor. In 1076, An-shi Wang resigned as the prime minister because his reforms failed due to making poor choices when appointing officials. In 1079, corrupt officials brought false charge against Dong-po Su of harboring malicious intentions because Su frequently criticized the government. They arrested Su and put him in prison for several months. Then Su was demoted to Deputy Commissioner of Militia at Huang-zhou City. In 1086, Guang Si-ma became the prime minister. During the Yuan-you Period Su became a member of the Royal Academy and then an imperial tutor. However, Su disagreed with Si-ma’s policies because the latter only wanted to make nominal changes rather than truly consider the well-being of common people. In 1094, he was demoted to Deputy Commander at Qiong-zhou City. In 1099, he was pardoned and moved north. In 1101, he died at Chang-zhou City. See the biography of Dong-po Su in Chapter 338 of The History of the Song Dynasty.

Wu-guan Lu said, “People claimed that Dong-po Su could not sing, so his folk style poetry was not harmonious with music.” Yi-dao Chao said, “In the beginning of the Shao-sheng Period, Dong-po Su and I parted at a ferry crossing on the upper stream of the Bian River. After drinking wine, Dong-po sang the song, ‘Gu-yang Pass’. It proved that Su can sing. However, his poems are so unrestrained that they may not comply with musical rules. I tried to sing a few of Su’s poems. After finishing, I felt that the wind from the sky and the rain from the sea had been moved by the power of the song.”

Chui-jian-lu (Small Voices) written by Wen-bao Yu (c. 1240) of the Southern Song dynasty says, “One day in his office, Dong-po Su showed his poem, ‘Nostalgia at Bei-gu Pavilion in Jing-kou City’ (to the Tune of ‘Lovely Nian-nu’), to one of his staff who was good at music. After the latter read the poem, Su asked, ‘How does my poem compare with those of Yong Liu’s?’ The staff member replied, ‘Liu’s typical lines, such as ‘I may be in a boat beneath the waning moon/ As the morning breeze brushes the willow trees along the riverside.’, are suitable for singing only by a seventeen-year-old girl who keeps time with wooden clappers. In contrast, it requires a hefty male westerner who plays a bronze lute or beats a gong to sing your line, ‘The mighty river flows eastward.” Dong-po Su roared with laughter.”
In a letter to mayor’s assistant Min-shi Xie, Dong-po Su wrote about the profundity of writing. He said, “Writing is like clouds drifting or water flowing. At first, it does not have any direction. However, it goes where it is supposed to and stops where it should. In other words, the development of an essay should be natural; a good essay is like a graceful woman whose bearing is full of charm.” Dong-po Su commented on his own writing, “My essays stem from tremendous resources. They run like a spring which may emerge anywhere from the ground.”

Su truly understood the profundity of essay writing. He was not only a great essayist, but also a great poet. In addition, Dong-po Su was a man greatly accomplished at practicing calligraphy, playing the game, “Go”, appreciating wine, and studying Buddhism. Su forged Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism in one stove with one flame: Confucianism inspired him to save the world; Buddhism and Taoism expanded his vision. It can be said that Dong-po Su was a man of many talents.

3 “Being Modest and Retiring” was the first poem in the chapter entitled “The Moon Rises” in The Poetry of the State of Chen, a volume of The Book of Poetry. The poem says, “When the bright moon rises,/ With a beautiful woman as my companion,/ My sorrow is relieved/ And my harassed mind becomes quiet.”

4 “The Dipper” refers to “the Constellation of the Big Dipper”; “the Herdboy” refers to “the Constellation of the Herdboy”.

5 Here “the sages” refers to the virtuous officials in the emperor’s court.

6 Cao Cao, a.k.a. Meng-de Cao, was the prime minister at the end of the Eastern Han dynasty. He forced Emperor Xian-di to do his bidding. Cao Cao and his two sons, Pei Cao and Zhi Cao, were great poets during the Jian-an Period.

7 Xia-kou City is located in Hubei Province.

8 In 208 CE, Cao Cao’s navy sailed from Jing-zhou City downstream along the Yangtze River. King Quan Sun of the Kingdom of Wu made his commander Yu Zhou and King Bei Liu of the Kingdom of Shu-han unite their forces to fight against Cao’s navy. They defeated Cao’s navy at the Red Cliff.

9 Jing-ling City is located in Hubei Province.

10 The following video shows Li-jun Deng singing Dong-po Su’s poem, “To the Tune of ‘Prelude to the Water Song'”:
The first line of this poem is “How long will the bright moon appear?”. The poem centers around this question which inspired Su’s concern and blessings for his country and his family. His observations of the moon made him understand that nothing is perfect. It also provided support for his life philosophy: Be content with what one has and be optimistic about the future.